CHICAGO – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to hold its first-ever "citizens academy" in Chicago this fall to educate the public on the role of ICE officers, but activists and lawmakers are pushing back against the program, which they say is intended to intimidate immigrant communities.
The 6-day program, occurring one day a week for six weeks starting in September, would serve as a pilot for nationwide programs, according to the agency announcement earlier this week. The goal of the program would be for participants "to become familiar with how and why ICE carries out its mission," the agency said.
The program would be modeled after other law enforcement academies – such as those by FBI and local police departments – and include classroom instruction, visiting an immigration detention center, learning more about the health care ICE provides to those in its custody and "examining ICE’s role in ensuring dignity, respect and due process of an immigration case from start to finish," according to the agency.
An invitation letter sent out to Chicagoans encouraging them to apply for the academy says that attendees "will participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization and targeted arrests."
ICE Public Affairs Officer Nicole Alberico, however, said the program is not intended to train members of the public to do the work of trained, federal law enforcement officers.
She said the program is looking for a "diverse set of influential community leaders" to apply for the academy, regardless of their stance on ICE. Typically, law enforcement citizens academies state that their goals are educational in nature and aim to give the public a better sense of police or enforcement work.
Chicago's mayor and federal and local lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the program's mission.
"In this welcoming city, vigilantes are NOT welcome," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Twitter Wednesday. "ICE's plan to train civilians to surveil and intimidate immigrant and refugee communities is vile. We will always stand up for and protect all of our residents, no matter who this administration tries to scapegoat."
Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, (D-Illinois), joined Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) to pen a letter to the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday requesting that the committee prohibit the use of federal funds for citizen academies within the Department of Homeland Security.
Later that day, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, presented an amendment to the Homeland Security funding bill for the 2021 fiscal year that denies funding for the program. The amendment passed.
"The United States is not a police state where ordinary men and women are deputized to carry out immigration enforcement based on discriminatory racial-profiling practices," Quigley said in a statement. "The so-called Citizens Academy program would do nothing less than train Americans to suspect their friends and neighbors of being dangerous criminals, regardless of their actual immigration status."
The Latino Caucus of the Chicago City Council sent a letter to the director of the Chicago ICE field office Thursday requesting that the agency cancel the event, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez told USA TODAY. The caucus took issue with the invitation letter's "incredibly troublesome language" about possible "scenario-based training and exercises."
"The language on the letter was very clear," Rodriguez-Sanchez said. "They are saying that this is a training to show people what the duties and realities of ICE agents are. They use the language of 'there will be sessions with firearms and targeted arrests.'"
Rodriguez-Sanchez said she and others planned to boycott the program.
"We are very aware of the danger that this poses to our communities, and we’re not going to allow that to happen," she said.
The Windy City has long considered itself a safe haven of immigrant communities. In 2016, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Chicago a sanctuary city, later challenging the Trump administration's attempt to deny sanctuary cities federal funding. In recent years, the city has implemented a new legal protection fund and launched a task force to coordinate policies affecting immigrants and refugees.
Last year, a bipartisan research group ranked Chicago as the most immigrant-friendly city in the U.S.
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago ICE citizen academy: Mayor says 'vigilantes' not welcome